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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Safe vs Haywire

I'm reviewing these two together because a) they complement each other nicely and b) I can complete last week and make further headway into this week at the same time. Neat, huh?

Here are two action films that are oddly pretty perfectly encapsulated by their titles.

Safe is every bit as unchallenging and as straightforward as its title suggests. Jason Statham stars as Jason Statham and, though his particular "mission" in this film involves his protecting a gifted young girl with an aptitude for numbers from warring mobs, it's a film about the Stath beating the ever loving crap out of an endless torrent of bad guys and that's really about it. It does exactly what it says on the can and it does it it well enough with all the gruff charm that we have come to expect from today's best action star - though the Stath's status as reigning ass-kicking champ is about to be put to the test. By a girl, no less.

Which brings us to Haywire. The second, and as far as I'm concerned, superior Steven Soderbergh offering out now in South African cinemas is a very weird mix of arty quirkiness and full on ass-kicking mayhem and it is all but guaranteed to firmly divide audiences. It starts off looking like your typical indie drama with a woman sitting alone in a very ordinary looking cafe, doing nothing but waiting for a man. With its subdued cinema-vertite cinematography, bleached colour palette and attention to the mundane, this opening scene lulls the viewer into a false sense of calm before suddenly and violently bursting into one of the most visceral fight scenes I've seen onscreen in years. And the aptly titled Haywire does this often.

Even when it looks like it's a stylish but decidedly ordinary espionage thriller, these momentary outbursts of ruthless fisticuffs keep on elevating Haywire from a by the numbers spy-on-the-run film into something far more special, until the whole thing reaches the breathtakingly exciting climax of the film's final 20 minutes. It's such a strange and visceral experience, in fact, that it's easy to overlook just how overcooked Haywire's absurdly convoluted, yet remarkably unspectacular, plot truly is. It really doesn't matter whether you're following what's going on onscreen or not - and, to be honest, I was lost for much of the film's running time - because the real draw of the film is marveling at Soderbergh's singular style as a director of action set pieces.

A startlingly effective combination of hyper-stylized camera work with stripped-down fight choreography and almost documentary-like realism on the one hand and life-like sound mixing and brilliantly strange music choices on the other, Haywire feels like no other action film you will see this year. Not only do these action scenes unsettle as easily as they thrill, there is a visceral physicality to the fight scenes that ensure that the audience feel every punch thrown and squirm at every bullet that hits its target. See it with an audience just to enjoy each other's reactions to these bone-crunching action scenes that are sure to have even hardened action junkies exclaiming out loud in vicarious agony.

Much of this success obviously lies in the hands of its director, but the film wouldn't work half as well as it did without the presence of its leading lady, Gina Carano. A mixed martial arts fighter, this is Carano's first proper film and yet she makes Haywire entirely her own, entirely eclipsing her terrific supporting cast that includes such notable thesps as Michael Fasbender, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas. She's a spectacular, no-nonsense martial artist, to be sure, that can presumably beat the living stuffing out of the entire Expendables cast put together but she's also a perfectly decent actress and a really sparkling screen-presence. As I mentioned, the film's plot is rudimentary at best so the quieter moments of the film could easily have dragged the whole enterprise down into the muck, but with Carano as a constant focus for the clearly smitten cameras, that simply never comes close to happening.                  

It's demonstrably far from perfect but do give Haywire a chance. It's not the Safe bet that Statham's latest obviously is, but it's an exciting and unexpected shot to the arm of a genre that all too often succumbs to a distinct lack of vitality and innovation. And believe me, you're not going to forget its ass-kicking heroine any time soon.




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